LINGUIST List 5.23

Wed 05 Jan 1994

Disc: Lingua Franca For Electronic Communications

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Jeff Bishop, Lingua Franca
  2. , Internet Lingua Franca
  3. Alexis Dimitriadis, Internet lingua franca

Message 1: Lingua Franca

Date: Mon, 3 Jan 1994 21:14:34 -Lingua Franca
From: Jeff Bishop <>
Subject: Lingua Franca

> English was no less driven by "brute force" than Latin (and,
> incidentally, Arabic). Hadn't English speakers been so successful
> militarily over several centuries, then we wouldn't use English today.
> It's sad, but let's admit that it's true.

If it *were* true, it would be wise to admit it. However, the ultimate
failure of the Russians to establish their language by brute force shows
that the above quote is, at best, an oversimplification. Did our armed
forces occupy Germany to make sure their schoolteachers taught the kids
to speak English?!

I am not sure what purpose would be served by renaming it, changing
spellings, or any other prescriptivist endeavors. The spellings Martin
Haspelmath refers to as "horrible" are in fact a double-edged sword. If
I were a Frenchman who had to learn English as a foreign language, I would
happily accept the weak relationship between spelling and pronunciation
in exchange for the easy recognition of cognates which would otherwise be
nearly indiscernible. And the same can be said about recognition of
morphological relations among words, which is much easier to do in
English than in languages with more phonemic spellings.

As for the eclipsing of other cultures, I think the language itself
should not be a major concern. Teach literature, history, culture, and
the like in the same way as before. The only difference is that most
educated people in these cultures grow up proficient in at least one
foreign language, which doesn't seem to work too well for cultures like
ours which can afford to be lazy. But then, which culture really gets
the short end of that deal?
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Message 2: Internet Lingua Franca

Date: Wed, 5 Jan 1994 15:09:34 GInternet Lingua Franca
From: <>
Subject: Internet Lingua Franca

Cheap global communication, such as the Internet, may help sever the
link between culture and geography. With easy electronic access to
foreign television, (video)telephone, books, newspapers, etc, and with
the possibility of working from home via multimedia links, a person
could culturally and linguistically live in an environment that has
little to do with their physical location. In an extreme case one
could have a block of flats in which the residents communicate mostly
with people living thousands of kilometres away and are unable to
communicate with each other because of the language barrier.

Global communication may thus make people more conscious of other
languages and of the language problem and encourage them to learn other
languages. In particular almost anyone could have the opportunity to
use other languages without travelling; in an extreme case they could
culturally "emigrate" simply by deciding to communicate mostly in some
other language.

Although machine translation is unlikely to greatly facilitate
international communication between stubbornly monolingual people,
software that can automatically gloss between a pair of languages could
make reading texts in an unfamiliar language much easier while at the
same time helping the user learn that language. (I think there was an
announcement in LINGUIST of software to help English speakers with a
basic knowledge of Japanese grammar read Japanese texts.)

At the moment language use is to a great extent limited by
availability, not by individual choice. For example, in Britain it is
very difficult to obtain German scientific literature, so that British
residents are forced to read the publications of German scientists in
English even if they can read German. Even in the Net such restrictions
exist; the German and French news group hierarchies don't reach
Britain, and in both Germany and France it is much easier to access the
Usenet groups in English than in the language of the neighbouring
country. Cheaper communication and data storage is likely to reduce
these restrictions so that individuals may have more freedom to choose
the languages they use.

These factors make me suspect that the growing availability of
electronic communication and language processing software is likely to
increase the international use of all languages and cause the relative
importance of English to decrease rather than increase.


The idea of using a deliberately modified version of English as an
international language is not new. Of the thousand odd international
language projects so far published there are a number of modified
Englishes. (Ogden's Basic English is probably the most famous.) None of
these projects has had anything like the success of Esperanto. Of
course this does not prove that such a project will always fail, but
some of the strongest opposition to their official introduction is
likely to come from the English speaking nations and their political
rivals, so one might have to wait until no English speaking country is
a major political, military or economic power. Even then the failure,
relative to Esperanto, of international language projects based on
modified Latin or Greek gives little encouragement.

It seems to me very unlikely that there could in any case be an
international language that is similar to but distinct from English. At
the moment nearly all international communication takes place in the
language of one of the participants, but even if all of today's
international communication were to take place in a single language,
the quantity would still be small compared with the quantity of
non-international communication taking place among the 5% of the
world's population that speaks English as a first language. If the
language used for international communication were similar to English
it could hardly avoid being influenced by English to the extent that it
would actually be English, which would remain primarily a national
language as long as its use by natives is more frequent than its use by

Political opposition to English as an official international language
is likely to come from nearly all established nations, not just those
nations whose languages are already official languages of the United
Nations, and certainly not just from France. Official contacts between
countries nearly always take place via translators and interpreters.

I don't think that the United Nations itself is competent to decide on
the choice of a world language. That sounds more like the
responsibility of UNESCO. In the unlikely event of UNESCO declaring
English as the world's language the declaration would probably have
about as much effect as the two resolutions that UNESCO has passed in
favour of Esperanto; even Esperanto speakers don't bother to read them.
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Message 3: Internet lingua franca

Date: Wed, 5 Jan 94 18:14:52 ESTInternet lingua franca
From: Alexis Dimitriadis <>
Subject: Internet lingua franca (Martin Haspelmath) wrote:
> --It seems ridiculous to me to assume that "the only really widespread
> character codeset, ASCII" has been one of the main reasons for the use of
> English internationally. Any language can be written intelligibly with the
> impoverished ASCII code, and in most situations transliterating must be
> easier than switching to another language. [...] ^^^^

 Wud yu faind et isier tu rid (or rait) e mesadz in Inglis speld fonetikli,
or tu suyts to enoder langudz dat yu cn rait in its neytiv alfabut?

 I am a native speaker of Greek, and I have OFTEN found it easier to toss
off an email message to another Greek speaker in English rather than deal
with trying to decide which rendering of a Greek word in the Latin alphabet
is the best tradeoff between a phonetic, or rather phonological, spelling
(impossible anyway since English doesn't have all the sounds of Greek), and
visual similarity to the Greek spelling. The latter appears to be by far
the more important consideration in email between Greeks, and helps the
reader reconstruct the native spelling. (See previous paragraph).

Alexis Dimitriadis
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